Parents demand expansion to eighth grade for Queens gifted magnet school

The city Department of Education says Queens P.S. 85 has no room to extend citywide gifted program to sixth through eighth grades. Photo: Inside Schools

Every morning, Tim Smith and his nine-year-old son leave their Bronx home at 7:30, catch a MetroNorth train to 125th Street and then board the M60 bus into Queens—all so the third-grader can attend P.S. 85 in Astoria, home to one of New York City’s handful of citywide gifted-and-talented programs.

Even so, they brace themselves for an even more difficult journey ahead: Finding a middle school.

In 2009, when P.S. 85’s program opened as part of an effort to expand gifted education, the Department of Education pledged “to identify nearby middle schools where students in these programs can continue after fifth grade.” But last month, responding to parents’ pleas to make good on the promise, the department informed them that P.S. 85 cannot handle expansion into a middle school because it is already “operating close to 100 percent capacity.” It said students in the gifted program — called the STEM Academy (it stands for Science, Technology, Enrichment and Math) — must go to middle school elsewhere.

STEM is the only citywide gifted-and-talented elementary school program that ends at the end of fifth grade. Three of the four other citywide programs –Manhattan’s Anderson School and TAG Young Scholars, as well as the Brooklyn School of Inquiry — continue through eighth grade, and Manhattan’s NEST+M carries students through the end of high school.

“The school was meant to be a peer for the other citywide gifted programs, and admission to a middle school program was supposed to be seamless,” said Smith.

STEM parents say all that they are looking for is a guarantee that the kids will have a place to go for grades 6 through 8. A resolution supporting this effort is expected to be passed Wednesday night at a meeting of the Community Education Council for District 30.

“STEM is the forgotten citywide program because it’s not Brooklyn or Manhattan. We are the only one that’s not K-through-8, we sort of feel like the forgotten citywide program,” said Michal Melamed, whose first-grade son commutes to P.S. 85 from Manhattan. “We want equity with the other citywide programs.”

For now, parents must decide whether to try to procure a spot in the other citywide programs (a long shot) or seek alternatives for middle school.

“There is a fair amount of scientific literature that suggests that it’s really hard for kids to switch school in middle school,” said Melamed. “Data suggests that having a K-through-8 model is how most of our schools should run.”

Other parents note that while 50 new middle schools will open over the next two years, none has been designated for a citywide gifted program.

The neglect, parents say, reflects a shift in priorities at the Department of Education. Under former schools chancellor Joel Klein, gifted education expanded at a rapid clip, with an eye on keeping young families in the city and choosing public schools. In 2009, gifted schools opened in Brooklyn and Queens, including P.S. 85. Even more were promised on the way.

“We’re going to open citywide programs in other parts of the city in the coming years as we continue to increase our outreach about the admissions process and identify as many of our City’s gifted students as possible,” wrote Klein in a March 2009 press release.

Now, the office of gifted education, formerly run by Anna Commitante, no longer exists. The Department of Education did not return repeated calls and emails for comment. Parents say the office was dismantled amid transitions from Klein to former schools chancellor Cathie Black in favor of a more inclusive approach to education.

The office was “for people who were not just figuring out enrollment and doing testing, which is all they do now,” said parent Michele Noris, who has a child at P.S. 85. “There were people who were working on curriculums and creating programs. … Focus away from gifted and talented program is, I think, part of an overall approach to heterogeneous classes.”

Parents at P.S. 85 say the absence of a middle school diminishes the appeal of their program.

Last week, parents of children entering kindergarten through second grade received admissions results notifying them whether their children qualify for the gifted and talented programs in public schools. To enter a program such as P.S. 85’s, children must have scored in the 97th percentile or above. To qualify for gifted programs at the district level, students must score above 90 percent.

Snagging a spot is hardly easy, and demand is growing. Last year, nearly 40,000 children took tests to get into gifted programs from kindergarten to third grade. Of that group, 14,088 students tested for kindergarten, and less than one-third earned a passing score.

Even then, admission is not guaranteed. Families rank preferences among citywide and district gifted-and-talented programs. Of the 1,803 qualified children for citywide programs, only 300 seats were available last year, representing a 6 percent admission rate — odds that are lower than Harvard or Yale’s.

Advocates of gifted-and-talented programs believe that these programs are integral and many children who should have access to the programs are still being overlooked.

“School is about learning and every kid should learn. They shouldn’t be waiting in their seats. It’s horrific to me; it’s immoral,” said Mary Kay Lewis, president of Advocacy for Gifted and Talented Education. “These kids need to be identified.”

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